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What I Know about My Heritage
By Fay Funk
When I was a baby, I was given a nickname: Papoose. It was given to me by my grandpa, who gave all of his grandchildren nicknames that related to something noticeable about them. My bubbly cousin was nicknamed “Smiley” and her analytical brother was called “Numbers.” Papoose means “child” or “cradleboard” in Algonquin, and has come to be a general term of endearment for children of any Native American tribe. As a baby I looked very Cherokee, with a full head of thick dark hair that stuck straight up, a look my grandpa recognized immediately. He had seen it many times before. My grandpa is one eighth Cherokee Indian, which makes me one thirty-second Cherokee.
I’m always a little edgy about telling people about my Cherokee heritage. I’m proud of it, and grateful for what I know about it. But I come to it from a very different perspective than someone who has lived on a reservation. I have never experienced systematic racism, and I never will. I am very grateful for that. I have also only experienced a small amount of Cherokee culture, and that makes me very sad. I do not consider myself to be a Cherokee Indian, at least not in terms of current life experience. Native Americans today are still directly affected by history, both pre- and post-Columbian in a way that I am not. It would be insulting for me to claim that experience. At the same time, my Cherokee ancestry is not nonexistent or unimportant to me. So I consider myself a white person with Cherokee heritage. I can speak to how historical oppression has destroyed my ability to really connect to my past and my feelings about that, as well as my feelings about the family members and cultural experiences I have had. But I have no place commenting on issues currently facing Native Americans, like cultural appropriation, or the recent Baby Veronica adoption case, except as an ally.
It’s amazing how much can be lost in a generation. My mother recalls visiting her grandma in Oklahoma and attending pow wows on the reservation. My mom and her siblings would wear squash blossom necklaces and watch people dance in full ceremonial outfits. I have never been to Oklahoma, much less a pow wow. It’s the result of increasing distance, both literal and figurative. My grandpa was very intelligent. He did well in school, joined the army, and went to the University of Oklahoma, before moving to Oregon to work as a math teacher. While very proud to be Cherokee, he has never been highly involved in the tribe. As for my mom and her siblings, life just caught up to them as they got older. There was no time to revisit history.
Even with as much distance as there is between me and the Cherokee Nation I could, theoretically, be part of the tribe. There is no blood quantum to join the Cherokee Nation. A blood quantum is the degree to which you are a certain race, like one half or one quarter. Some tribes have a blood quantum, and some do not. Not having a blood quantum is a means of preserving the culture. The more people that can join, the longer the tribe can continue to exist, a real concern with so few Cherokee Indians left of any blood quantum. It is still not easy to join the tribe though, and it probably will never happen for me. In order to join, you must be a direct descendant of someone on the rolls, as in, a parent. For reasons I don’t know, my grandpa is not on the rolls, so our last relative on the rolls was his mother. In order for me to join the tribe, my grandpa would first have to join, then my mom, and then me. My grandpa is 80, and the process is not easy, so I don’t see it ever happening.
I am fine with not being on the rolls. I know my ancestry, and I don’t need any legal confirmation of it. Also, while I would not qualify for federal or state benefits given to Native Americans, I worry that being considered Native American would give me an unfair advantage. My mom encouraged me to list myself as Native American on college applications when I was a teenager, thinking it would give me a better chance by appearing diverse. I did a few times, though it made me extremely uncomfortable. I never do that anymore on any form. Striving for diversity is supposed to be an equalizer for people who have been systematically disadvantaged, not a loophole so white people can exploit their nonwhite heritage. When Native Americans or other people of color are given consideration for their racial diversity it is an attempt to level a playing field that has previously given them a disadvantage. When a white person is given consideration for the appearance of diversity, they are really getting special treatment. It makes things even more unfair.
The most recent time I have seen a white person exploit their Cherokee ancestry for personal gain was when the recent Lone Ranger move came out. Johnny Depp stars in it as Tonto, and it’s a very racist portrayal of a Native American, from a franchise that was already pretty racist to begin with. In interviews Johnny Depp tried to defend the role, by pointing out his own Cherokee ancestry. And it’s true, Johnny Depp is Cherokee, in the same way I’m Cherokee. He can be proud of his heritage, and has every right to explore it, but cannot claim to have lived it himself. He’s trying to have his cake and eat it, too, performing as a racial stereotype with none of the drawbacks of being that race, plus a get-out-of-jail-free card if anyone calls the performance racist. It’s behavior like this that makes me loathe to tell anyone about my ancestry. I don’t want to be compared to someone like Johnny Depp.
I have struggled in exploring Cherokee history. The more I learn, the more I become aware of what has been lost. I am very lucky to be who I am, and frustrated by what I will never have. So much has been destroyed. When I was in college, I took a Constitutional Law class. Our big paper was a theoretical case about Native American Law. Some of the most important cases concern the Cherokee Nation, like Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and Worcester v. Georgia. The supposedly pro-Indian outcomes did nothing to stop the forcible removal of Cherokee people from their lands in Georgia and sending them on the forced march known as the Trail of Tears that killed so many people. According to my mother, our first ancestor on the rolls was a fourteen-year-old girl who survived the trail to Oklahoma. The rest of her family died on the way. Reading about those cases made me very frustrated. Even with the law on their side they couldn’t win. It was an ethnic cleansing, and it was successful. It’s why I have so little connection to my heritage.
Not everything experience has been sad though. I was very fortunate to meet a few of relatives of mine who were actively involved with the tribe. A few years ago, my Great Uncle Jimmy and Cousin Dale came up from Oklahoma to Oregon to visit. They told us about attending tribal councils. Jimmy showed me his BIA card, and a rattle he made. Before they left, Jimmy came up to me and said: “Osiyo. That means ‘hello’ in Cherokee. You should remember that.” I still do. A meeting like that is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Jimmy died a few years ago. It was a bittersweet meeting, like most of the times I’ve encountered anything about being Cherokee. The more I learn, the more I learn about what has been lost. As frustrating as it can be, it’s not hopeless, because my knowledge of my Cherokee heritage is not zero. There are systems and people in place that can preserve this culture, so while much has been lost, it’s still possible to hold on to what is left.